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There's a much larger house on fire

P. Sainath

About the time 50 Dalit houses were set ablaze in Gohana, the country marked 50 years of a law giving effect to the Constitution's abolition of untouchability. As if to rub it in, 25 more Dalit homes were torched the same week in Akola, Maharashtra.

Burri nazar walle, theri ghar mein ladki paida ho (You evil-eyed people, may girls be born in your homes).

SCRAWLED ON the back of a lorry in Gohana, those words capture the soul of casteism in Haryana. Even while taking a crack at Dalits whose houses they had reduced to rubble, their oppressors couldn't fail to proclaim women to be a curse. (A view many of them clearly act upon. You can see that from Haryana's appalling sex ratio of 861. That was the worst among major States in the 2001 census.)

About the time 50 Dalit houses were set ablaze in Gohana, the country marked 50 years of a law giving effect to the Constitution's abolition of untouchability. As if to rub in the irony, 25 more Dalit homes have been torched in the same week. This time in Akola, Maharashtra.

Of course the Constitution banned untouchability. It was to give effect to Article 17 that Parliament passed the Untouchability (Offences) Act, 1955. This was later made more stringent and renamed the Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955. Still the crimes went on. So, along the way, we brought in quite a few other vital laws. Like the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1989. Crimes under this Act invite harsher penalties than similar offences would under the Indian Penal Code. Half a century into the process, we grapple with the very crimes the first of these laws sought to end.

Was Gohana 2005 a one-off aberration? We could then say: awful, but these things happen. And get on with life. The catch of course is that they happen every so often. And to the same people. Even a show of mandatory anguish — "what an atrocity" — doesn't begin to meet the problem. Not when the crime is systemic, societal, and structured. Not when a state disables its own citizens.

The countless reports on the subject over the years do not show discrimination against Dalits to be dying away. The many volumes of the National Commission for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes make grisly reading. Crimes against Dalits and Adivasis have risen by the decade. By as much as 25 to 28 per cent in some periods. Yet the number of such cases ending in conviction of the criminals is dismal. Less than one per cent in some courts.

The events in Gohana and Akola are just a part of an ongoing crime against humanity. For that's what caste-based discrimination is. (But I'm still sure you'll see editorials that tell us these things are wrong because `they send bad signals to investors.')

In Gohana, the dominant castes, the police, the state, all did their bit in bringing terror and ruin to the Dalit basti. (The police say that after a Jat died in a clash with some Dalits, the Jats `retaliated.') Fearing an attack, over 1,000 Dalits fled the basti. The police steered clear of the village while a mob of some 1,500 people burned around 50 Dalit houses to the ground. A thousand people had fled knowing an attack was coming. Yet the police claim they were clueless about it.

The Dalits here are Balmikis. That group is possibly the worst off within the Scheduled Caste fold. More so in terms of the humiliation it bears. In caste society's eyes, the Balmikis embody the worst forms of "impurity." They are `manual scavengers.' They handle and dispose of "night soil." (That's polite society's term for human excreta.)

Gohana's Balmikis had tried to climb out of that caste-imposed rut. They had educated their children. Got jobs outside their traditional role. Some even landed low-level government posts. And over years the Balmikis fought off the efforts of the Jats to extract begar — or forced labour — from them. Their relative improvement was itself a major provocation. This is consistent with attacks on Dalits in other parts of the country too. Doing better is a crime.

The mob in Gohana did not kill any Dalits. Partly because they had already fled. The focus, though, was on looting and on destruction of property. Dalits owning decent houses? With fridges and television sets? They had to be shown their place. Houses having gas connections were destroyed using the absent owner's LPG cylinders. The relatively good houses of the Dalits were an eyesore to their enemies.

Gohana's Balmikis had, against daunting odds, emerged from the depths of deprivation. They had created these houses and assets over decades. With a kind of effort that much of society might never understand. In these, they invested not just their money but their emotions, passion, dreams, and the future of their children. The death of those dreams, the destruction of those assets, was achieved in hours. Petrol cans and police connivance were all it took.

The State now offers each home Rs. 1 lakh as compensation. A fraction of its losses. Forget tending to the trauma. Note the manner in which the Dalits were `punished.' In true feudal tradition, an individual offence became a collective crime. A Dalit is alleged to have killed someone. All Dalits in his basti must pay the price. The due course of law gets dumped. The caste panchayat reigns higher than the courts.

It was in the same State a few years ago that police battered little Usha, also a Balmiki, in Jind. The girl, not yet in her teens, was helping her mother clean a local school. The school headmistress accused her of stealing a gold chain. Not content with thrashing the frail child herself, she called in the Haryana police. Meanwhile, the chain was found. The headmistress had merely mislaid it. The family got the girl back, unconscious, badly bruised and with teeth broken.

We could, of course, say "that's Haryana." And there would even be an element of truth in it. Except that the same prejudices work in many ways across most of the country. Chunni Lal Jatav, a survivor of the Kumher massacre in Rajasthan, once put it famously. "All the judges of the Supreme Court do not have the power of a single police constable. That constable makes or breaks us. The judges can't re-write the laws and have to listen to learned lawyers of both sides. A constable here simply makes his own laws. He can do almost anything." With state and society winking at him, he pretty much can.

And those committing crimes against Dalits know they have a great chance of getting away with it. State Governments have dropped countless cases filed against upper caste offenders under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1989. Kalyan Singh's BJP Government in Uttar Pradesh dropped such cases in thousands. A move quickly emulated by the Shiv Sena regime in Maharashtra. Later governments did not reinstate these cases.

In Tamil Nadu, Dalits have been forced out of elected office even in reserved panchayats. In Melavalavu, the Dalit panchayat president's head was severed and thrown into a well. Dalits in Dravidian Land, an excellent book by Frontline's S. Viswanathan, paints a powerful picture of Dalit life in that State.

Oddly, whether it's Gohana, or Jhajar before it, discussion on these issues seldom links up to those other, ongoing debates. For instance, that on reservation. No link is seen between any of this and the debates on social justice. On present SC / ST quotas. Or on the call for quotas in the private sector. Gohana actually has people who gained, if modestly, from reservation.

Against huge odds, Gohana's Balmikis snapped their chains. They educated their children. This is not easy. In schools, their boys and girls face the taunts of `upper' caste peers. (Across the country, large numbers of Dalit pupils drop out of school to escape such humiliation.) First, society places them under inhuman handicaps. Then we demand a "level playing field" against them in jobs and education.

The children of manual scavengers and other poor people return each evening to homes without electricity. And so cannot study in the way other kids can. They go back to homes without good books. They cannot afford "tuitions." They have no "connections" to land them jobs or seats. In the face of these odds, their achievements are admirable. A true level playing field could actually tilt the balance in their favour. For it would start by ending their handicaps. But look at the fury stoked by the mere idea of private colleges setting aside seats for such people. (Never mind that the Supreme Court judgment allows such colleges to create quotas for rich NRIs.)

Yet, Gohana's Dalits have achieved something more. Dalits in Haryana are now stepping into the public space in a way not seen too often. And Dalit women appear to be in the forefront of the protests. There is a lot of pressure on the government to act. The Congress' own Dalit MLAs are in the hot seat. All this is good. Yet there is a much larger house on fire. If only we could see it.

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